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Materials are like the construction of your house

Once the concrete foundation is set, the walls are built with bricks that overlap each other to form a nice patchwork. Floors are separated thanks to concrete or wooden beams and to keep the rain out ceramic or slate tiles are stacked upon the ingenious timber frame that forms the solid base of your roof. Concrete, bricks, wood and roof tiles are however not the only important key matters in guaranteeing the solidity of your house. It can resist heavy rain showers, storm or even worse thanks to the materials that keep everything together; steel reinforcement, cement, mortar, nuts and bolts, nails and screws are as important to guarantee a longstanding feeling of safety in your home.

Materials are alike. All materials, also those in our houses, are constituted of building stones as well. These microscopic building stones are called ‘atoms’. They can be stacked in many different ways and the way they are stacked determines in large part how strong the material will be. A nice example is the comparison of ‘diamond’ and the grayish core of our pencil, the latter also indicated as ‘graphite’. Both materials are completely constituted of carbon atoms, yet diamond is the hardest material known on earth and your pencil rod is as soft as butter. The difference is explained by the way the carbon atoms are stacked. The stacking in both materials is clearly illustrated by the pictures below. In a diamond all atoms are strongly tied to each other, explaining diamond’s hardness. Your pencil rod consists of several atom layers of which the bonding of the atoms in one layer is very strong, yet the bonding strength between the individual layers is very weak, explaining its softness.

DIAMOND                                                         GRAPHITE

diamond_graphite_structure

 

Where diamond and graphite consist of only carbon atoms and one stacking type, it should however be realized that most materials are built up with several types of atoms and can contain several types of stacking, the latter called ‘phases’. A well known example are steels. Steels are mainly constituted of iron atoms, yet also a small portion of carbon atoms is present along with some other atom types. Dependent on how these atoms are stacked in one or more phases, the final material will be a conventional construction steel, a stainless steel or yet another type of steel.

It is also possible that a material is constituted of several other materials. A very well known example are the race bikes of professional cyclists like Tom Boonen or Sven Nys. The frame and several other parts of their bicycles are made of so called ‘composites’, materials built up out of several other materials. In the case of the frames it consists e.g. of carbon fibers embedded in a polymer matrix material and also their bicycle helmets are made of composite material. To end where we started: also your house contains several composite materials: reinforced concrete is composed of a steel reinforcement, embedded in concrete; concrete on itself contains stones, sand, cement etc.

All stackings together determine how strong the material will be, how strong your house will be.

 

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